Ben Gadsby is an education policy specialist, a former chairman of Thurrock Conservatives, and an Associate Fellow at the thank tank Bright Blue.
Over the past year, with very high vacancy rates in our economy, there’s been a noticeable policy focus on how to get more people into the labour market. This has been a focus of ConservativeHome’s recent ‘Reducing the Demand for Government’ series. The Centre for Social Justice also continues to do an admirable job, banging the drum for Universal Support, the sister of Universal Credit.
A vital element of Universal Support should be that support is provided by an independent key worker. In my day job, I spend a lot of time thinking about the support young people specifically need to get into work. I spent some time last year looking at how to do this through Department for Work and Pensions’s Youth Hubs and Youth Offer. One thing that really struck me was the extent to which what young people want from employment support sounds like common sense – a supportive environment where staff try to understand the challenges they face and help them overcome them.
One of the real advantages of having the support provided separately to Jobcentres is that it separates employment support from benefit sanctions. How would you build a supportive relationship with someone while also sanctioning them and cutting their Universal Credit? Clearly, it makes things harder. There’s a real opportunity in Youth Hubs and Universal Support to explicitly design this separation of support and sanctions – Universal Support/Youth Hubs to provide support, and Jobcentres to apply sanctions.
It’s striking the extent to which as Conservatives we start from this optimistic belief that with the right support, everyone can succeed. Almost all contributors to this summer’s ConservativeHome series on reducing the demand for government-proposed incentives or support mechanisms to enable people to lead better lives. As the final part of this autumn’s editorials in the same series puts it, “We must strengthen the family, revive civil society and tear down the barriers to work for all those capable of it.”
This is not to say that sanctions aren’t an important part of the policy mix – it’s just that they aren’t solutions to people’s underlying problems. And without solving underlying problems, we cannot hope to make a meaningful change in society. This is why sanctions rarely came up as a leading suggestion for reducing the demand for government.
For an example of the challenges caused by asking the same body to provide both support and sanction, look to our schools. Another work project this year looked at the causes of the dramatic falls in attendance in schools. Our research found parents don’t really seem to respond to fines for absence – the fines are less than the savings you can make on a holiday, even if you do get caught.
However, parents do say that being fined by schools is antagonistic and damages their relationship with the school. If we want to support parents to improve attendance, fines might be getting in the way.
I want to propose an organising principle for policymaking: as far as possible, the organisations and institutions responsible for providing support to people should not be responsible for sanctioning them. Applying this principle is easier in some policy debates than others, where it could have more significant implications.
At the simplest end, GPs should not fine people for missing appointments. We need our GPs to support people with health conditions and sensitive concerns; to add sanctions to the GP toolkit would be counterproductive. It’s not that fines are necessarily wrong, it’s just that they will undermine the bit we care about – GPs helping people lead healthier lives.
As a more complicated example, what would it look like in children’s social work to separate the social work supporting families from the social work that is more sanction-heavy? Do we need visibly separate organisations and staff for those elements of social care that involve removing children from their carers and other areas that are likely to be felt more sanction than support?
What does it look like in the policing and justice system? Many people caught up in crime are also victims, whether it’s gang violence, county lines drug crimes, or various forms of abuse and exploitation. Crimestoppers allows you to report things anonymously, which is undoubtedly useful if you are caught up in something.
Could we separate some of the “community engagement” elements of policing from the arresting/sanction elements more widely? There’s already a split in custody between the police responsible for interviewing and investigating crime, and those responsible for detainees’ welfare.
Splitting support from sanctions should not detract from the fact that challenging conversations are sometimes a necessary part of supporting someone. Building high-trust high-challenge relationships is vital, but there is a difference between empathetic challenge and sanctioning. Why would anyone seek support from someone who they thought was going to punish them?
If our starting point for reducing the demand for government is that with the right support, everyone can succeed we need to ensure those responsible for support aren’t also responsible for sanctions.